“West Indies: An Island Carnival”

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West Indies: An Island Carnival (Nonesuch 972091-2), recorded 1969-71

Reviewed by  Tracey Hughes (“Old Time Music of the Americas”):

As Daniel Sheehy writes in the notes to this CD, “In Port of Spain, Trinidad,… you can sit in a little shop owned by a Chinese eating East Indian food served by a man whose mother’s father was African, mother’s mother Indian,  father’s father Irish, and father’s mother Lebanese… The same musician…may happily whistle the latest calypso hit while on his way to a religious feast where he will sing songs in Yoruba to [African deity] Shango, after having played jigs and reels in a dance band the night before.”

The many musical influences in this collection merge seamlessly to provide a joyous introduction to traditional Caribbean music that still stands up as the best, 30 years since its initial release.  Some highlights:

From Dominica, the Jing Ping Band pounds out a polyrhythmic merengue on button accordion, tambourine, guiro (scraper), and boom boom (bamboo-cane “tuba”).  This multi-layered style of dance tune, common all over the Caribbean, is traditionally delivered without guitar or string accompaniment of any kind, drawing your ear into the complex interplay between the three rhythm instruments and the irregular bass notes of the accordion.

“Masouc” (mazurka)  is a lovely example of a Caribbean fiddle tune, played by fiddler Julius Alfred on a Saturday evening with his band in the village of Soufriere, St. Lucia. The string band consists of fiddle, guitar, cuatro (4-stringed guitar), and shak shak (metal cylinder full of pebbles).  All over the Lesser Antilles string bands play tunes originally learned at plantation owners’ festivities for quadrilles, polkas, and waltzes.

The Spiritual Baptists, or Shouters, a Trinidadian sect, use no conventional instruments, “but the congregation clap their hands, stamp their feet, strike benches and chairs and make rhythmical sounds with their voices.'”  In their beautiful hymn, “Jesus Going to Prepare a Mansion for Me,” congregants gradually leave singing behind and break into pure hocketing and other improvised spontaneous rhythmic vocal effects in a dense outpouring of communal exhuberance.

“Mr. Walker” is played by a cocoa-lute duo from Grenada.  The cocoa-lute is a musical bow, played with one end held in the mouth, and a plucked a single string.  “Good Morning, Mr. Walker” was a huge calypso hit for the legendary Trinidadian calypsonian Mighty Sparrow, and later popularized by Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence.  Here, played on a single-stringed African instrument, it has been reclaimed by folk tradition, and played  with enough syncopation and drive to propel a hall full of dancers.

Sheehy: “For over half a millennium, the region has been host to a continuous flow of human migration that has left in its wake a kaleidoscope of cultural hybrids,”  and some of the most infectious music you will ever hear.  This anthology, still in print, is a highly recommended introduction.

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